Gambia: Voters Embark on Bruising General Election

Gambians are voting in what promises to be a nail-biting election. Incumbent President Adama Barrow is being challenged by five other candidates, in what increasingly appears like an unpredictable contest.

Among his challengers are Barrow’s former political godfather, veteran opposition leader Ousainou Darboe of the United Democratic Party (UDP) and veteran politician Halifa Sallah of the People’s Democratic Organisation for Independence and Socialism (PDOIS).

Until mid-October, the contest appeared to be a two-horse race between Barrow’s National People’s Party (NPP) and UDP.

But exiled former president Yahya Jammeh’s surprise endorsement of a third candidate, Mama Kandeh, changed that. Kandeh, a former MP under Jammeh’s APRC, had broken away and formed his own party, the Gambia Democratic Congress (GDC), under which he ran in the 2016 poll and placed third position. His candidature was partly credited for causing Jammeh’s loss.

Some 856, 719 Gambians are registered to vote, using marbles which are dropped in drums bearing the images of the candidates and their party colours.

The election promises to be the interesting for many reasons. First, it attracted an unusually large number of candidates – over a dozen. Secondly, the election will also be the first since former strongman Jammeh’s defeat in the 2016 polls ended his 22-year iron-fisted rule.

Gambia, with a population of 1.9 million, according to its 2013 Population and Housing Census, came close to a civil war after the outcome of that election was disputed by Jammeh, a former military ruler. He first came to power in a coup in 1994. He would go on to contest and win all elections, until 2016.

Barrow won the 2016 poll at the back of a coalition of opposition political parties, and he is seeking reelection amidst accusations from his former allies of betraying the people’s trust.

The 2016 Coalition, as it was known, was set up on the basis of an MoU that required Barrow to serve only one term and organise elections, after implementing key reforms that included enacting a new constitution. Disagreement over his political future contributed to the failure to get a new constitution.

Jammeh’s 22-year rule was characterised by alleged human rights violations. A Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission (TRRC) hearing concluded earlier this year laid bare his crimes that included extrajudicial killings and massive financial crimes.

The final report of the TRRC was presented to President Barrow last week. And he has promised to implement its recommendations.

But critics of the president also accused him of betraying the victims by seeking to form a coalition with Jammeh’s APRC party. That alliance has since caused the disintegration of the former governing party after Jammeh, in exile in Equatorial Guinea, kicked against it.

Human rights campaigners were angered after Barrow visited Jammeh’s family home as part of his attempt to woo the exiled former president’s supporters.

Other concerns in the minds of many Gambians when they go to the polls on Saturday will be the perceived influence of Senegal over the Barrow’s administration.

During the political impasses that resulted from the disputed 2016 election, Barrow was flown out into Senegal where he was sworn into office. And later Senegalese troops headed an Ecowas peace mission team which forced Jammeh to leave the country.

Those troops continue to stay in the country five years own, much to the dismay of many Gambians who see them as occupiers.

Although the campaigns have been largely peaceful, they have been marred by tension, sometimes fuelled by ethnic references.

Former Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma arrived in Banjul on Thursday at the head of an election observation mission by the regional bloc the Economic Community of West African States.

Koroma is heading about 50 election experts and observers drawn from the 16 Ecowas member states, among them government representatives, ambassadors, civil society and the media.

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